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Irving Shapiro, 85; Top DuPont Exec, Lawyer

September 17, 2001|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Irving Shapiro, the only lawyer and one of the first people outside the founding family to become chief executive of chemical manufacturer DuPont Co., has died. He was 85.

Shapiro, who was chairman of DuPont from 1974 to 1981, died Thursday of cancer in Wilmington, Del..

The son of a Lithuanian immigrant tailor and dry cleaner in Minneapolis, Shapiro shared modest beginnings with E.I. duPont de Nemours & Co.

He worked his way through the University of Minnesota Law School with odd jobs and a talent for poker, and remained so grateful for the school's emergency loans during the Depression that he later donated more than $1 million to aid other students.

DuPont itself had begun in 1802 with a single mill on the banks of the Brandywine River near Wilmington, and gained its first national attention as a supplier of gunpowder to the United States during the War of 1812.

But by the time Shapiro assumed the business management mantle in 1974, the company needed all the experience and expertise he had acquired as a litigator and well-spoken liaison to the government and the public.

An energy crisis had struck, a recession was beginning, and DuPont faced spiraling costs for raw material and fuel, paired with declining revenue. In a marked change for the conservative company, Shapiro borrowed millions of dollars to develop new plastics and other products. He dropped unprofitable businesses and diverted money into the ones with greater potential.

Shapiro also created an energy department--something DuPont had never had--to seek alternative fuels and to conserve the old-fashioned ones. He streamlined management along the lines of the government agencies that he knew intimately.

And he rallied the public through speeches, media interviews and testimony before Congress to limit regulation on manufacturing in order to keep corporate America competitive abroad. Often defending DuPont products such as Freon--implicated in ozone depletion--Shapiro repeatedly cautioned against "needless banning of useful products."

Shapiro was a close personal advisor to President Carter, and might have returned to government service, he said, if Carter had been reelected.

Instead, when he retired from DuPont in 1981, Shapiro returned to the law as a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom's Wilmington office.

Shapiro spent the World War II years in Washington, D.C., in the Office of Price Administration and then in the Justice Department, where he remained until joining DuPont in 1951.

As in-house lawyer, he represented the chemical maker in a number of high-profile cases, most notably in a government antitrust case that resulted in DuPont's divesting its 37% ownership of General Motors stock in 1962.

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